A lot of this may seem old hat, but please bear with me until the end.

When you first start browsing the World Wide Web, things look kind of like this:

Diagram 1: An eyeball browsing the World Wide Web
Diagram 1: An eyeball browsing the World Wide Web

The little squares are websites, out of which new information, ideas and pictures bubble and trickle like water from a spring.

Diagram 2: The eyeball becomes more discriminating
Diagram 2: The eyeball becomes more discriminating

Eventually, the World Wide Web separates itself out into two distinct categories. The first, shown on the far right, is of sites you only occasionally remember or check on, or run into because someone sent you a link - the spare-time blogs, the news sites that only occasionally produce an article that catches your attention, the odd Vimeo channel.

The second, shown in the middle area above, is of sites you visit nearly every time you open your web browser. If your web browser is a palantír then these sites are rather like Barad-dûr, in that once you’ve visited them once or twice, they hold your attention, and you keep coming back to them.1

For people who use the web for reading, for Items of Interest, this middle group includes more than just Facebook or Yahoo Finance or online shopping. It includes sites like kottke and Tumblr and Lifehacker - sites that mainly collect interesting links from other sites, rather than being creative in their own right. They act as a filter. You keep coming back to them because they do all the work of finding the interesting items for you. These “filter sites” are represented by the long thin rectangles. To the reader, they are a mile wide and an inch deep.2

Diagram 3: The eyeball is habitually drawn to a web site with original content
Diagram 3: The eyeball is habitually drawn to a web site with original content

Here you see a different kind of site now in the middle area. It’s in the middle, but it’s not a filter site; it is “interesting” in and of itself. Whoever maintains it is mostly writing his own content, taking his own pictures, and generally fueling the endeavor with his or her own creativity. Of course, there are lots of these kind of sites on the far right, but the difference is that the ones in the middle are both good at creating interesting things, and at doing so regularly.

If you’re still reading by now, you’re probably someone who has an interest in creating a site like that polka-dotted one above, or in moving your site from the right to the middle. You’re actually the ones I’ve been talking to all along in this post. So all of that was to say this:

The people who make the polka-dotted sites are able to do it only because they have time to create, healthy attention spans, and the focus to actually finish what they start. And - here’s the kicker - they have these things because they spend less time reading other websites, particularly the other sites in the middle.

All other things being equal, the more you feed off of others’ creative output, the less of your own there will be.

UPDATE, see also Consumption: How Inspiration Killed, Then Ate, Creativity

  1. It still seems funny to me how, these days, you can draw analogies from Tolkien and a decent majority of people will understand them. 

  2. I don’t mean that as an insult (although building a site that way doesn’t appeal to me personally); these sites are their own kind of interesting and have large audiences for a reason. The web as a medium tends to favour this kind of format, actually, since the slices of attention the reader must commit to them are far smaller. Whether or not that is a good thing is beyond the scope of my thought here, but I do believe it is detrimental to personal creative activity. 

Kottke describes the current state of the web:

“It’s much easier to find interesting things to read and look at online than it used to be…the web is now largely filters on top of filters on top of filters. So I don’t have to sift through as much stuff as I used to.”

Joel (Author) ·